"Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever…" Richard Burton (background) and John Hurt in Michael Radford's 1984 film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Photograph: Allstar
After the third world war, Britain is now Airstrip One in the American superstate of Oceania, permanently in conflict with Eurasia and Eastasia. Winston Smith, a former journalist employed by the Ministry of Truth to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports state policy, decides to launch his own hopeless private rebellion against the oppression of "the Party" and its all-seeing, all-powerful dictator, Big Brother. Winston's revolt gets added impetus from his association with Julia, another dissident, who wants to use her rampant sexuality to defy the repression of "the Party".
When Winston and Julia's brief affair is discovered by the Thought Police they are subjected to the torments of Room 101 at the hands of the merciless O'Brien. "If you want a picture of the future," says this demonic figure, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever." At the end, now brainwashed into submission, Winston awaits his execution as "the last man in Europe", the working title of Orwell's first draft.
The plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is one thing; its ideas are something else. In the 65 years since its publication, "Big Brother is watching you", "newspeak", "doublethink" "prole", "thoughtcrime", "unperson", "reality control" and "the Two Minutes Hate" have become inseparable from the English language. Orwell himself, in the words of one critic, "the wintry conscience of his generation", has become a kind of secular saint, which is an incarnation that might surprise his former colleagues on this newspaper, the Observer.
A note on the text
Orwell had been attached to David Astor's Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. His editor professed great admiration for Orwell's "absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency", and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the backstory of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell's creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the interaction of fiction and journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind. There were other influences at work. Soon after Richard was adopted, Orwell's flat was wrecked by a doodlebug. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received the news that his wife, Eileen, had died under anaesthesia during a routine operation.
Now David Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the northern tip of this desolate part of the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train to Jura, a risky move. He was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century, and he had always suffered from a bad chest. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. "Smothered under journalism," as he told one friend, "I have become more and more like a sucked orange."
On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions but the promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides came with its own price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he had described the struggle to complete a book: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's personality." Then that famous Orwellian coda: "Good prose is like a window pane."
From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. At first, after "a quite unendurable winter", he revelled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. "I am struggling with this book," he wrote to his agent, "which I may finish by the end of the year – at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn."
Life at Barnhill was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cosy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world. Once his new regime was settled, Orwell could finally make a start. At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: "I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can't quite shake it off."
Mindful of his publisher's impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: "Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess having very little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job." Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed "rough draft" by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. In late October 1947, oppressed with "wretched health", Orwell recognised that his novel was still "a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely". Just before Christmas, he broke the news that he had been diagnosed with TB.
In 1947 there was no cure for TB – doctors prescribed fresh air and a regular diet – but there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment from the US. The side-effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails) but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. "It's all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff," Orwell told his publisher. "It's rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works."
As he prepared to leave hospital, Orwell received the letter from his publisher that, in hindsight, would be another nail in his coffin. "It really is rather important," wrote Warburg to his star author, "from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible."
Just when he should have been convalescing, Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising Warburg to deliver it in "early December", and coping with "filthy weather" on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: "I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it's awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn't conclusive."
The typing of the fair copy of "The Last Man in Europe" became another dimension of Orwell's battle with his book. The more he revised his "unbelievably bad" manuscript, the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, "extremely long, even 125,000 words". With characteristic candour, he noted: "I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB."
He was still undecided about the title: "I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE," he wrote, "but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two." By the end of October, Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.
By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle "the grisly job" of typing the book on his "decrepit typewriter" by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.
Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that "it really wasn't worth all this fuss. It's merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can't type very neatly and can't do many pages a day". Besides, he added, it was "wonderful" what mistakes a professional typist could make, and "in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms".
The typescript of George Orwell's latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognised its qualities at once ("among the most terrifying books I have ever read") and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted "if we can't sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot".
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US). Secker & Warburg in the UK, and Harcourt Brace in New York were eager to get it out into bookshops as soon as possible. Orwell's American editor, Robert Giroux, whom I remember with fondness from the 1980s, did not wait for the English page proofs from which to set his edition, as was customary. Instead, he prepared a fresh copy for the American printer, with the result that the two first editions are significantly different in many small ways.
The novel was almost universally recognised as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell's health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January he suffered a massive haemorrhage in hospital and died alone.
Orwell's title remains something of a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London's novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writers GK Chesterton's story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell's American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there's no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair's birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There's no mystery about the decision to abandon "The Last Man in Europe". Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg, who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four would be a more commercial title. It remains one of the all-time classics of the 20th century.
Three more from George OrwellDown and Out in Paris and London (1933); Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); Animal Farm (1945).
Nineteen Eighty-Four is published by Penguin (£7.99). Click here to order it for £6.39
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